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Not by the numbers

Times Staff Writer

Jasper Johns would be king of the contemporary art world if he chose to flaunt the trappings of success. No other living artist has been held in such high esteem for such a long period.

At his first one-man show in 1958 -- a landmark event at Castelli Gallery in New York -- the Museum of Modern Art and leading private collectors snapped up the mixed-media paintings of American flags, targets and numbers that signaled the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Pop.

As years and then decades passed, Johns was no longer the next big thing, but he never lost his aura. Sales of his work have set one record after another, and retrospective exhibitions have appeared at the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and MoMA in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Today the 73-year-old artist is a soft-spoken eminence who rarely appears in public. And he’s such an established figure that he might be taken for granted. But his latest show, “Jasper Johns: Numbers,” a traveling exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 18, is drawing an appreciative audience and critical praise.

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All this fame and fortune is a bit of mystery to Johns, or so he says by telephone from his winter home on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. But he has learned to live with the celebrity that flows from exhibitions and the art market.

New York taxicab mogul and collector Robert Scull bought “Double White Map” in 1958, the year it was made, for $900 and sold it at auction in 1973 for $240,000. And that was only the beginning of an astonishing run of escalating prices. The Whitney Museum purchased his 1958 painting “Three Flags” for $1 million in 1980, a record price for a contemporary artwork. On Nov. 9, 1988, as the market soared, Christie’s auction house sold “White Flag,” a 1955-58 work, for $7 million; the next day, Sotheby’s sold “False Start,” a 1959 painting, for $17 million. Johns’ prices have yet to rebound to those boom-time heights, but his works routinely fetch multimillion-dollar prices at New York auctions.

“The only thing I can say about that is that you get used to it,” Johns says. “Once something like that happens, it’s very surprising, but if it happens repeatedly, you are not constantly falling over backward. You have to adjust to it and just take it as a fact in the world. I often think that some pieces are neglected for odd reasons, and that makes me think the reasons things are paid a lot of attention to are also wrong. But you are never certain what those reasons are.”

To say that he has come a long way is an understatement as well as a cliche, but his stature is the realization of a childhood dream.

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“I always wanted to be an artist,” Johns muses, “but I didn’t know what an artist was. I thought it was a person who attracted attention, did something interesting -- and would have to be some other place than where I was. I was in this little tiny town in South Carolina in a rural area, and I knew that to be an artist you would have to be somewhere else. Part of my ambition was my dissatisfaction with being where I was, and that came very early in my life.”

Born in 1930 in Augusta, Ga., to parents who separated soon after his birth, Johns was raised by grandparents and aunts whose homes were scattered around South Carolina. He was shunted around during his early years, then attended a one-room school (where one of his aunts was the teacher) in a community called The Corner.

“I have no idea where my idea of art came from,” he says. “My grandmother painted very conventional paintings. I didn’t know her, but I saw a few of her paintings in houses of various members of my family.”

Those artworks didn’t offer much inspiration, but his first encounter with a real live artist made a big impression.

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“I was living in a rural area with an aunt out on Lake Murray, S.C.,” Johns recalls. “This must have been during the Second World War, and a German artist somehow moved into the community. It was considered quite outrageous that a German person would come and live in this place, and everyone was very suspicious of him. Out in the middle of this lake there were islands where the Air Force did practice bombing. The local gossip was that Mr. Kobe -- I don’t remember his first name -- was sent as a German spy to observe the bombing. But I was in awe that Mr. Kobe was a real artist. And that he was married to a writer. They were like figures from a different world.”

After a year and a half of study at the University of South Carolina, Johns set out to join that world in New York City.

“I was very naive and not very adventurous and had no money at all,” he says. “I lived on 116th Street and Riverside Drive, where I had a room with a family. I knew so little about New York that I would go down to 42nd Street to the automat to have dinner. I didn’t know there was anything in between.”

New York artistic roots

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Essentially self-taught, Johns studied at a commercial art school for six months and supported himself as a messenger boy and shipping clerk. But his adventure was interrupted by military service. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he returned to South Carolina for basic training, then did a tour of duty in Japan.

Johns returned to New York in 1954 and met Robert Rauschenberg, a transplanted Texan and artist-on-the-rise, five years his senior. Despite their strikingly different personalities, the reticent Johns and the voluble Rauschenberg became fast friends, living in the same building and exchanging ideas daily.

Rauschenberg, whose effusive work incorporates a plethora of found objects and images, often says that he works in the gap between art and life. Johns, who has created a relatively restrained body of work based on a few ordinary objects, is loath to discuss the meaning of his art, but he offers insights into its evolution.

Like his flags and targets, the numbers in LACMA’s show began with “things that existed, so I wasn’t inventing them,” Johns says. “They are things that are often not particularly looked at but are easily recognized and we are always dealing with them. I simply tried to enlarge the vocabulary of images. Once I began to think about what I was doing in a self-conscious way, I thought of other things that connected to the material I was already using.”

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Abstract Expressionism had pushed figurative painting into the background when he was getting his start. Numbers are abstractions, but they are also known as figures, and that twist appealed to Johns. Amused by the pun, he called his depictions of individual numbers “Figures” and delighted in their formal differences.

“When I was doing single numbers, I enjoyed some more than others,” he says, “but that has to do with the complexity of straight and curve. For instance, the figure one is very simple and kind of heroic-looking, stoic perhaps. When you get into the eight, curving about, and the nine and the six being almost the same thing upside down, each had a different character. I had to work with that.”

As for the zero, “well, there it is,” Johns says, bursting into laughter. Initially less appealing than other numbers, probably because of its symmetry, it eventually worked into his repertoire.

The typeface of the numbers has changed over the years. “I can’t remember what I used as an example in the first ones,” Johns says. “But at a certain point, I obtained stencils. I was delighted that they existed, and I just used them as they were. Most of the paintings where the numbers are arranged in rows are done with stencils. I had nothing to do with their design.”

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And that was a distinct advantage.

“If you start designing, you have endless possibilities of altering things in a way that doesn’t particularly interest me,” he says. “I wanted the most basic, simplest, recognizable thing.”

The L.A. connection

Johns didn’t come to Los Angeles for the opening of “Numbers,” but he has had a large presence in the city because of prints produced at Gemini G.E.L., a major publisher of limited-edition works by leading artists. From 1968 to 1981, he worked at Gemini at least twice a year, producing 100 editions of works on paper and seven editions of lead sculpture. Since then, he has participated in charitable fund-raising efforts by sending printing plates to Gemini and signing the finished work.

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Gemini co-director Sidney Felsen calls Johns “the ultimate collaborator.” Most artists simply provide images that are produced by master printers. “Jasper loves to mix the inks and wash the plates,” Felsen says. “During his proofing sessions he was regularly at the presses observing, sometimes helping as the proofs were pulled. It’s about his interest in every aspect of why something happens and what he can gain by knowing these fine points.” Though Johns is reputedly reserved and reclusive, Felsen says he’s a remarkable gentleman who takes a personal interest in everyone at the shop.

“Sidney is trying to get me to come out again,” says Johns, who now spends much of his time in Connecticut, where he has his own print shop. “One of the problems for me was that whenever I would go to Gemini, I felt that I had to have a project in mind that would fill a period of time. When I’m at home, I can just work if I think to work on something that day and not feel that the printers are waiting, that I am holding them up and I should do something for their benefit. You do feel that when you are working in a shop. You don’t want to disappoint people.”

Johns describes himself as an undisciplined artist who works every day but intermittently. “I can work for 15 or 20 minutes and then dig in the garden and then go back and do some more,” he says. “That’s probably because when I was young I had to work in my spare time. I never developed very good working habits.”

But he’s still at it, working on a painting that he says he can’t explain -- “a large painting with circles and diamond shapes in it.”

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Critics are still writing about his work as well, and Johns says he reads most of their reviews. “There is a lot of theoretical writing about my work that I don’t enjoy,” he says, “and I tend to just glance at that. It interests me when people have ideas about my work, but it’s very hard for anyone to say anything new. Mostly people who write now have to respond to other people who have already written. It’s not as fresh as it was early on.”

Asked to take a long view of his career, he falls silent, then responds thoughtfully: “I think my work has evolved, but there are complicated connections that run through it. In certain ways, I think it is more subtle now. When you are young, you do things that you feel are successful. You want to be good and you want to do something that is recognizably good. As you get older, you are not so dependent on that feeling and you are willing to risk certain aspects of obviousness.”


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